Humbled giants eye business phone market

August 13, 2009

Nokia e71LONDON, Aug 13 (Reuters) – Once they were warriors battling one another on the digital battlefield. Nowadays, Microsoft and Nokia are worriers, huddling together for comfort.

The world’s top phone and software companies need each other to compete with Apple, Google and Blackberry-maker Research in Motion (RIM), whose products increasingly define what users expect from phones and charge premium prices in consequence.

In the market for so-called “smartphones”, Deutsche Bank estimates Apple and RIM now take home more than half of all profits, despite producing less than a third of high-end mobile phones. Nokia held a 45 percent share of the smartphone market in June, according to Gartner Inc. (Table 2 in Gartner release)

The news this week that Nokia will feature Microsoft’s office software — features such as Word and Excel — on phones aimed at business users is symbolic of what is possible rather than significant in itself. It fell short of predictions in the gadget trade press that Nokia might introduce phones running on Microsoft’s own Windows Mobile software.

But that doesn’t mean their collaboration should be dismissed. There’s more to this budding relationship than meets the eye.

First and foremost, Microsoft and Nokia say they are taking on the Blackberry email-phone, a must have among corporate professionals. So far the they haven’t done very much, for all the big talk. But they have pledged to make Microsoft Outlook work smoothly on Nokia phones.

This is crucial in overcoming Blackberry’s key advantage — the underlying software that companies rely on to securely manage corporate e-mail.

The opportunity here is that corporate technology managers are no longer content to supply only Blackberry devices but are gearing up to support a wider range of devices and software systems, reflecting shifting user tastes and demands.

Microsoft and Nokia need one another because despite being leaders in their respective fields — computer software in Microsoft’s case and phones for Nokia. But these powers have not translated into dominance in the era of converged devices.

To some extent, they have themselves to blame. The two giants spent the first half of the decade at war with one another over Microsoft’s bid to enter the mobile phone business with its Windows Mobile software and Nokia’s half-hearted attempts to do the reverse and expand its presence in computer
markets.

Years of legal and technology standards battles resulted in a stalemate. Windows-based phones number only a little over 20 million in a market of billions, and Nokia has made only tentative steps to enter computer tablet or netbook computer markets. Nimbler rivals have exploited these distractions.

Microsoft isn’t the only technology giant Nokia is cuddling up to. In June, the Finnish company announced that it would team up with computer chip king Intel Corp on chips for future phones. Nokia was careful this week to underscore that the Intel deal is about future generations of Nokia products while the Microsoft ties are for phones in the here and now.

Whether or not Nokia sells some Windows-based phone models or Nokia eventually introduces a mini-netbook computer running Windows software is largely irrelevant to the central problem these two companies face.

Microsoft and Nokia must create differentiated products that help users do things Apple and Research in Motion cannot do. Otherwise these two giants face marginalization in the era when phones become computers.

You can read some of Eric’s recent columns here.

(Photo: Reuters/Vivek Prakash, Singapore)

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